Trump Defense Chief Seeks Diplomatic Push in South China Sea

Updated on
  • Mattis sees no need for dramatic military moves at this time
  • China lashes Mattis comments on isles in dispute with Japan

Diplomatic efforts should be exhausted to resolve the South China Sea dispute, said U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, weeks after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to advocate a tougher stance.

Speaking in Tokyo after a meeting with Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, Mattis accused China of "shredding the trust" of its neighbors. He said freedom of navigation remained absolute and that all nations should "play by the rules."

James Mattis

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

"What we have to do is exhaust all efforts, diplomatic efforts, to try and resolve this properly," Mattis told reporters. "Our military stance should be one that reinforces our diplomats," he said, adding that "at this time we do not see any need for dramatic military moves at all."

China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, where it has constructed features on seven rocks and reefs and installed military facilities. Several Southeast Asian nations and Taiwan also claim parts of the area, through which more than $5 trillion of trade passes each year.

For more on China’s territorial disputes, click here.

Last month, Tillerson provoked a sharp rebuke from China when he said the U.S. should send a clear signal that further island-building should stop, and that China’s future "access to those islands is also not going to be allowed."

Providing Reassurance

In the first overseas trip by a member of Donald Trump’s cabinet, Mattis sought to reassure officials in South Korea and Japan that the new administration will stand by both alliances.

Concern had grown after Trump accused the two nations of failing to pay enough for U.S. protection. Both countries rely on the U.S. "nuclear umbrella" to deter threats from China and North Korea.

Mattis also reaffirmed the longstanding U.S. view that East China Sea islands disputed by Japan and China are administered by Japan and are therefore covered by the U.S.-Japan security treaty.

Four Chinese coastguard vessels were spotted close to Japan-administered waters around the uninhabited isles known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese on Saturday, according to the Japan Coast Guard.

Cold-War Relic

China lashed out at the U.S.-Japan alliance as a "result of the Cold War" after Mattis met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday. Abe is set to meet Trump in Washington on Feb. 10.

"The Diaoyu islands have been a Chinese territory in history," foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said.

"We urge the U.S. to take a responsible attitude, stop making wrong comments on the sovereignty of the Diaoyu islands to avoid further complication of related issues and avoid bringing regional instability," he said.

— With assistance by Yuan Gao

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